As I was reading an article in Smithsonian Magazine recently (I don’t read many magazines, but the Smithsonian is invariably fascinating) I saw a mention of a course at MIT that uses science fiction works as a springboard for discussing the ethics of technological advances. I read about that aspect of science fiction as literature in Wired for War but hadn’t exactly known where to start to dig into the concept. With a little help from Google, I managed to track down the syllabus to the course and decided to embark upon reading some of the selections.
First up, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This novel, written in 1968, deals thoughtfully with the question of what, exactly, makes us human and which life is worth protecting. In the late 60s robotics were far from lifelike, but nowadays, apparently, artificial intelligence technology is not too far away from the dystopian future the author imagined. If robots (androids) can be made smarter and smarter, given ever more exactly calibrated responses, and made exceptionally life-like in appearance, where does the line of humanity get drawn? The author artfully contrasts humans who are less fertile, less intelligent, or less apt than others with the nearly superior intelligence of the androids to set up this question. And, in using a made-up religion, the author also explores whether the true kernel of humanity is in the ability to comprehend eternity, feel empathy, and share in the joys and sufferings of others.
I think these ideas are important in our culture, perhaps because robots will eventually get to this point, but more precisely because even now we have significant disagreement on what life means and whose life deserves protection. Absent any agreed-upon standard outside of ourselves, our definition of life really is left to whatever best suits us and our interests. The question of how to frame morality and ethics apart from external authorities impacts the possibility of reasoned debate on issues of life and death, as the author of this book references by having the tests for human life change and become obsolete with technological advances. As a Christian who does believe in biblically-based moral and ethical standards, I found the themes of this book thought-provoking although I wouldn’t say I reached any new conclusions about how to have big discussions and debates with people who disagree with my framework.
Apart from its philosophical merits, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was also a really engrossing story, and I’m thinking of reading other books by the author to see if I like those as well.
If you like science fiction, what are some of your favorites from the genre?
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